ENTRY

Paxton, Millie Lawson Bethell (1875–1939)

SUMMARY

Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton was a civic leader who worked toward a more inclusive democracy in Roanoke. She worked to redress racial inequality on many fronts as organizer of the city’s first Colored Women’s Voting Club, leader of a local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People membership drive, Roanoke chair of the Better Homes in America organization, founding president of the Ideal Garden Club, and president of the auxiliary at the local Burrell Memorial Hospital, a pioneering health-care facility for African Americans. Paxton was an officer or member of almost every African American women’s organization in Roanoke including the Independent Order of Calanthe, Young Women’s Christian Association, and Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. She also raised three children as a single mother and worked in Roanoke’s African American schools. Paxton died on July 2, 1939.

Early Years and Family

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute

  • Church and Academic Hall
    Church and Academic Hall

    A photograph of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) shows the school's chapel, with its 150-foot clock tower, and an academic building at right. The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Hampton Students Working on Telephones
    Hampton Students Working on Telephones

    Students repair and construct telephones in a class at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Students Studying Agricultural Science
    Students Studying Agricultural Science

    Students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) measure the amount of force being applied by the screws in cheese presses. This exercise was part of the curriculum devoted to agricultural science. The message on the blackboard behind the class reads in part, "In all its effects, learning the meaning of things is better than learning the meaning of words." The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Indian Wearing Traditional Clothing in American History Class
    Indian Wearing Traditional Clothing in American History Class

    Louis Firetail of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe wears traditional clothing and stands next to a bald eagle in an American history class at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Class in Liberal Arts and Sciences
    Class in Liberal Arts and Sciences

    Students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) mold clay to mimic objects hanging from easels attached to their desks. This exercise was part of a liberal arts and sciences class. The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Constructing a House
    Constructing a House

    Students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) work to finish the interior of a house that they built largely by themselves. The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This carefully composed image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

Millie Lawson was born February 2, 1875, in Pittsylvania County. She was the daughter of Alice Lawson. Birth records do not name her father, but by the time of her marriage in 1895, she had assumed the name Millie Lawson Bethell and recorded the name of her father—likely her stepfather—as Clinton Bethell. She also apparently believed that she was born on March 29, 1876 or 1877, which latter date her descendants placed on her gravestone. She was educated at the Virginia Seminary (later Virginia University of Lynchburg) and at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University), class of 1895, and married William H. Paxton, a saloonkeeper, in Danville on December 25, 1895. They lived in Danville and had two sons and one daughter. Paxton’s husband died on October 6, 1901, not long after they moved to Roanoke, where he operated one of the city’s first horse-drawn cab companies.

Left to raise her children alone, Paxton worked at various times in domestic service or as a laundress, but her primary livelihood was as the attendance—or truant—officer for the city’s African American schools, a post she held for many years. A 1921 article in the Richmond Planet reported that she “is on the job each and every day. There are so many boys and girls who do not attend as they should, and Mrs. M. B. seems to keep on the run.”

Civic Activism

First Baptist Church in Gainsboro, Roanoke

  • First Baptist Church in Roanoke
    First Baptist Church in Roanoke

    A large congregation sits inside the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church, dedicated in 1900, and located at 407 North Jefferson Street in Gainsboro, a historic African American neighborhood in the northwest section of Roanoke. The church moved to a new location in 1982, and this original sanctuary was destroyed by fire in 1995.

  • First Baptist Church Bible School
    First Baptist Church Bible School

    Students in the First Baptist Church Bible School in Roanoke—some of them mere toddlers—pose for a photograph taken in the early twentieth century. The Black congregation began services in 1867 and moved several times before building an imposing brick structure with a tower that was dedicated in 1900. In 1982, the congregation moved into a new church; and thirteen years later, a fire destroyed the nearby 1900 structure.

Paxton participated in an extensive array of community, church, and political activities and was an officer or member of almost every African American women’s organization in the city. By 1905 she was helping organize local chapters of the Independent Order of Calanthe, the women’s affiliate of the Knights of Pythias, an African American fraternal association headed by John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet. At Roanoke’s prominent First Baptist Church, Paxton was the longtime teacher of the Dorcas Bible Class, vice president of the Missionary Society, and a leader in the Helping Hand Club, which assisted in special services and observances. First Baptist’s Church News, which served as an informal record of African American society in Roanoke during the era, regularly mentioned activities Paxton was involved in, including speaking engagements. In May 1933, Paxton was Mother’s Day oratorin Martinsville and in February 1934, she gave an inspirational speech in Roanoke to the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Association of Colored Railway Trainmen.

Burrell Memorial Hospital in Roanoke

  • Burrell Memorial Hospital
    Burrell Memorial Hospital

    An unidentified speaker addresses a racially integrated audience on the grounds of Roanoke's Burrell Memorial Hospital, a health-care facility established for African Americans in 1915. The hospital was named after Dr. Isaac Burrell, a prominent local Black physician who had died the previous year from complications after an acute attack of cholecystitis (inflammation of the gall bladder). Burrell was denied treatment in the region's all-white medical facilities and had to be transported via boxcar to Howard University's Freedmen's Hospital, about 250 miles away. He died either before or after surgery.

  • Nursing Staff at Burrell Memorial Hospital
    Nursing Staff at Burrell Memorial Hospital

    Members of the nursing staff and their families take part in an unidentified function on the grounds of Burrell Memorial Hospital, a medical facility for African Americans established in Roanoke in 1915. The hospital was named after Dr. Isaac Burrell, a local Black physician who had died the previous year after being refused medical treatment at local all-white facilities.

At a time of segregated and often inadequate health care for black citizens, Paxton served for several years as president of the auxiliary at the local Burrell Memorial Hospital, a pioneering health-care facility for African Americans. Conscious of the value of home ownership and neighborhood beautification, she became the founding president of the Ideal Garden Club, formed with thirty-two members on October 29, 1929. She also served as Roanoke chair of the Better Homes in America organization after World War I (1914–1918). Paxton helped organize the Phyllis Wheatley branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, to bring the benefits of the leadership and empowerment organization to the city’s black women and girls. Formal launch of the branch occurred on April 1, 1923, with 127 charter members, including Paxton as chair of the House Committee. In addition, she was a charter member of the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and later chair of its Ways and Means Committee, an officer of the State Parent-Teachers Association, and an active Red Cross worker.

Masthead of the Richmond Planet

Paxton’s obituary credited her with organizing Roanoke’s first Colored Women’s Voting Club. Alternatively identified as the Colored Women’s Republican Club of Roanoke, the group proved instrumental in helping register black women to vote in the 1920 presidential election, the first after ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In the Richmond Planet,John Mitchell Jr. heaped praise on the club, which he said “went over the top on election day.” With Paxton serving as president, the group inspired a reported 655 black women to register and vote. The showing contributed to Roanoke’s surpassing Norfolk, a larger city, to rank second to Richmond among Virginia localities in registering women for the historic election. “Roanoke, like all the other cities in the State of Virginia,” Mitchell continued, “was surprised at the interest that its colored women took in the affairs of the nation.” He predicted a bright future for the club and urged his readers to “Watch Roanoke.”

Oliver W. Hill at the General Assembly

Paxton remained active in politics. In 1934 and 1935 she spearheaded a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People membership drive in Roanoke that was sufficiently successful to merit a photograph in theCrisis, the organization’s national publication. Among the new members enrolled during the drive was Oliver White Hill, who later achieved legendary status as a civil rights attorney. In 1936, Paxton was listed first on a nine-member Roanoke-area NAACP committee that raised money for the Scottsboro Defense Fund in support of nine African American teenagers falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white women.

Paxton’s three children were noteworthy in their own right. Her eldest, William Herman Paxton, was an accomplished high school athlete who joined the United States Army and was killed in France during World War I (1914–1918). The Herman Paxton Post No. 161 (Colored) of the American Legion was organized in Roanoke in 1933. As a Gold Star mother, Paxton was president of the post auxiliary. Lawrence Paxton became a prominent Roanoke dentist after he graduated from the Howard University College of Dentistry. In 1956, at a time when few black citizens held elective office in the South, he was a candidate for Roanoke city council, and he was later chair of the biracial board of trustees of Burrell Memorial Hospital, among other posts. Her daughter Lillian Paxton was reportedly the first African American physical education teacher in Roanoke schools before she married and moved to Hampton.

Later Years

Paxton, who suffered from chronic hepatitis and arteriosclerosis late in life, died in Roanoke on July 2, 1939. She was buried at Lincoln Burial Park, later known as Williams Memorial Park Cemetery. At her death a Virginia newspaper described her as “one of Roanoke’s most widely known and beloved colored citizens,” active “in all phases of civic and religious work.”

MAP
TIMELINE
February 2, 1875
Millie Lawson is born in Pittsylvania County, Virginia.
1895
Millie Lawson graduates from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute.
December 25, 1895
Millie Lawson Bethell marries William H. Paxton, a saloonkeeper, in Danville, Virginia.
October 6, 1901
William H. Paxton, Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton's husband, dies in Roanoke.
1905
Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton is helping organize local chapters of the Independent Order of Calanthe in Roanoke.
November 2, 1920
By this date, the Colored Women's Voting Club in Roanoke, of which Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton is president, has registered a reported 655 black women to vote in the presidential election.
March 19, 1921
An article in the Richmond Planet mentions Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton's appointment as attendance—or truant—officer for Roanoke's African-American schools.
April 1, 1923
The Phyllis Wheatley branch of the Young Women's Christian Association is launched in Roanoke with Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton as chair of the House Committee and 127 charter members.
October 29, 1929
The Ideal Garden Club is formed with Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton as its founding president.
1933
The Herman Paxton Post No. 161 (Colored) of the American Legion is organized in Roanoke. As a Gold Star mother, Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton is president of the post auxiliary.
May 1933
Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton is Mother's Day orator in Martinsville, Virginia.
1934 and 1935
Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton spearheads National Association for the Advancement of Colored People membership drives in Roanoke.
February 1934
Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton gives a speech in Roanoke to the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Association of Colored Railway Trainmen.
1936
Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton is listed first on a nine-member Roanoke-area NAACP committee that raised money for the Scottsboro Defense Fund in support of nine African American teenagers falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white women.
July 2, 1939
Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton dies in Roanoke. She is later buried at Lincoln Burial Park (now Williams Memorial Park Cemetery).
1956
Lawrence Paxton, Millie Lawson Bethell Paxton's son, is a candidate for Roanoke city council.
FURTHER READING
  • Tarter, Brent, Marianne E. Julienne, and Barbara C. Batson. The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2020.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Edds, Margaret. Paxton, Millie Lawson Bethell (1875–1939). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/paxton-millie-lawson-bethell-1875-1939.
MLA Citation:
Edds, Margaret. "Paxton, Millie Lawson Bethell (1875–1939)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 20 Oct. 2021
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